Portrait of the Week – Maria Amalia of Austria

26 February 2014


Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Roslin, c1780. I suspect this fabulous portrait was intended as a present for her little sister Marie Antoinette, with whom she maintained a friendly correspondence after their separation. Both women were of similar fun loving dispositions and were married to Bourbon husbands (first cousins in fact as they were both grandsons of Louis XV) that they might not perhaps have chosen for themselves had they had any say in the matter!

It seems like a really long time ago now that I wrote The Secret Diary of a Princess, my novel about Marie Antoinette’s life in Austria before her marriage and things have certainly moved on a great deal since those days. I was on maternity leave at the time and completely bored out of my skull when I first decided to write something a bit silly to cheer myself up a bit and perhaps amuse some of my friends. Who could possibly have guessed that it would go on to sell a bazillion copies and launch me into a career of full time writing? I have a great deal to thank it for.

Anyway, even though I wrote it ages ago, I still have very fond memories of the bits featuring Marie Antoinette’s elder sister Maria Amalia, who was born on this day in 1746 and would eventually go on to become Duchess of Parma. Lovely, glamorous, vivacious Amalia was known to be the ‘socialite’ of the Imperial family; the daughter most likely to be seen out having fun in the Viennese capital, especially when it was Carnival time. As well as being pretty and sociable, she was also, like most of the Imperial children, very gifted in the arts (thanks in part to tuition from the finest teachers) and was both an excellent artist and a noted singer.

It was probably no surprise therefore when Amalia fell madly in love with one of the young men at the court and in line with her tempestuous, headstrong nature insisted upon marrying him. The object of her affection was the young and rather bolshy natured Karl Augustus of Zweibrücken, who was a few months her junior and who seemed to ardently return her affection.

The match was not actually a bad one: Karl was the eldest son and heir of the Duke of Zweibrücken, the elder brother of the Queen of Saxony (also called Maria Amalia) and, most crucially, heir to the Kingdom of Bavaria. However, typically for royal parents of the day, Maria Theresa had other plans for her daughter.

At the time, there were three great matrimonial prizes available to Catholic princesses in Europe: the three Bourbon cousins, Ferdinand of Naples, Ferdinand of Parma and the Dauphin Louis of France and Maria Theresa was determined that each would marry one of her daughters. It was Amalia’s fate at the age of twenty two, which was rather late in the day by contemporary standards, to be matched with eighteen year old Ferdinand of Parma, the brother of Joseph’s beloved and much mourned dead wife, Isabella and grandson of Louis XV of France.

Amalia protested, of course but in the end had to bow her head to her family’s will and the betrothal was announced in 1769. Karl, heartbroken, left Vienna forever and would always be embittered towards the Austrian royal family as a result. Later, in a twist of fate he would be married to Maria Amalia of Saxony, the daughter of the Elector of Saxony and first cousin of the Dauphin Louis, whose mother, Maria Josepha had planned and schemed to marry the two cousins to each other to introduce still more Saxon blood into the French royal family. She was thwarted in this though as Louis would, of course, ultimately end up married to Marie Antoinette, the sister of the other Maria Amalia. Confused yet?


Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Meytens, c1765. Photo: Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna.

We don’t know what happened between Karl and Amalia after her marriage on 19th July 1769 to the Duke of Parma. It’s possible that they continued to correspond and perhaps they even ‘found each other in society’ as the Duc de Richelieu recommended that his daughter do when she was in the exact same situation. Certainly, Amalia is believed to have had several lovers during her time in Palma so it isn’t inconceivable – although her marriage, despite appearances, turned out very well in the end – it produced nine children, four of whom survived infancy and as she and her husband were both relatively eccentric sorts, they seem to have decided at the outset to live and let live and treat each other with tolerance and friendship, even if they would never be madly in love.

Here’s to Maria Amalia then – eccentric, wilful and full of feistiness to the very end of her days. Her formidable mother, Maria Theresa, may have found her somewhat wayward and disappointing as a daughter but she turned out to be a loyal wife and sister when the old dynasties of Europe began to crumble at the end of the eighteenth century.

‘Frothy, light hearted, gorgeous. The perfect summer read.’ Minette, my young adult novel of 17th century posh doom and intrigue is now £2.02 from Amazon UK and $2.99 from Amazon US.

Blood Sisters, my novel of posh doom and iniquity during the French Revolution is just a fiver (offer is UK only sorry!) right now! Just use the clicky box on my blog sidebar to order your copy!

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